I hope it is whisky; we will be here for a while.
Accountants can help us with some of our biggest social and environmental challenges. In the current context, with Brexit on the horizon, I thought this debate would be useful, and later in my speech I shall come to the issues relating to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Let me give a little background on accounting systems—the non-accountants in the room can tune in now, because this is the exciting bit. Accounting has come a long way since it was established centuries ago: we had the evolution of double-entry bookkeeping from the original ledgers; we then had some base computing in the 19th century, and then more into the 20th century; and we now have the far more advanced accounting systems that we use today. During my previous life, before I entered the House, I was lucky enough to use a range of different systems, on which I shall touch in just a minute.
One of the Government’s greatest advances in the area of using accounting systems to help on the domestic front was the Making Tax Digital scheme. Unfortunately, like many others, I was greatly upset by the fact that the Government had to defer some of their plans to make tax digital because of the advent of Brexit and the consumption of Government time by Brexit preparations. Making tax digital and using accounting systems, whether for small or large businesses, is important because it makes us more efficient and more productive, and it can lead to better decision making for companies right across the United Kingdom. That is vital.
Whether someone is a single trader in Portsmouth, working for the global manager in Edinburgh, or working for a large multinational in London, accounting systems can really give them the transparency of data that they need. They are also environmentally friendly, because as accounting systems develop, we are able to move away from paper receipts and invoices and towards electronic records, which makes interactions between individual companies, customers and suppliers far easier, more efficient and more effective. As a result, the real benefit will be for the entire country, because not only will companies grow, but it will contribute to our productivity and thus our GDP.
Another important point is that as companies are developing, intangibles and intangible assets are becoming more and more important in their valuation. In fact, just a few years ago it was recognised that around 80% of the value of the S&P 500 is in intangible assets rather than tangible assets. That is why the development of accounting systems is so important: we need to be able not only to capture the value of our physical assets, and use the traditional accounting fair-value methods to make sure that those assets are held at the right value, but to look at new methods of valuing intangibles, because the intangibles of brands and, to a certain extent, intellectual property, along with other new technological advancements, mean that it is increasingly the case that less and less of companies’ value is being captured on our stock exchanges, and that obviously has an impact on the prices that are traded and the returns that can be made by companies and customers throughout the country.
As I said earlier, a number of systems have come into the accounting sphere that can help smaller businesses to improve and be more effective. One of them is Xero and another is QuickBooks, and there is also Oracle for large companies. I should say, for the sake of fairness, that plenty of other accounting systems are available. The point of these systems is to make sure that, from the base transaction and from the base-level accounts receivable and accounts payable systems, right the way up to the highest-level strategic decision making, managers and users of the information have the correct information —the one source of truth—and that there is consistency in the data right the way through the organisation. That is for the benefit not just of the actual company, but of HMRC and our Government. The better the records we receive, the more accurate the accounts are and the more accurately we can calculate the tax take for those companies as well. Obviously, it is always a good thing that not only should taxes be low, but companies and individuals pay the taxes that they do indeed owe.
In the current context, as we move between accounting systems, I would like to apply some of this to the discussions that we have been having on Northern Ireland. The reason why I take this leap—some might see it that way—is that many of the accounting systems that are imported now are connected to HMRC to help companies and individuals file their tax returns. They are also connected to HMRC for the purpose of VAT filing. As we know with Northern Ireland, VAT and customs have been a key issue in the new withdrawal agreement, and I will explore that a little bit more—hopefully with help from my colleague from Northern Ireland.